HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc798-800

3 p.m.

Lord Borrie asked Her Majesty's Government:

When their proposals to restrict ministerial involvement in merger cases, as announced in August 1999, will be implemented.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is currently considering the responses to the Government's consultation on merger reform and plans to issue a response in May.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, I had hoped to be slightly more encouraged by the Answer than I am. I hope that the proposition in the consultation paper, that in future Ministers will be less likely to second-guess the competition authorities in such matters, will he carried forward. Will the Minister consider making a statement with instant effect so that the proposition put forward by the Government can be carried into effect immediately rather than awaiting legislation with the uncertain priorities that that will entail?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's point about awaiting legislation, but I do not believe that he is right to suggest that we should anticipate the proper consideration of consultation. After all, many people—companies, lawyers, the CBI, the TUC, consumer associations, regulators and individuals—have responded to the consultation document. They are entitled to have their views taken seriously. An instant statement of the kind recommended by my noble friend would scupper that.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, will the Minister agree that this situation is widely regarded as the result of the dispute between the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry? In view of the Government's commitment to "joined-up" government, would it not be a good idea to take up the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Borrie?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have given my reasons for rejecting the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Borrie. As to any widely regarded view on disagreements between government departments, that is the view of the noble Lord.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a paradox in that although the Secretary of State will step back in relation to cases that arise in the United Kingdom, on his own analysis he will most probably be stepping forward in relation to European cases, given the White Paper produced by the Commission a year ago and the problems of consistency between national administrations?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point that was indeed raised by the Secretary of State in his speech last Monday to the Social Market Foundation. The Secretary of State certainly recognises that the European dimension is likely to make some decision-making political, and as a result that will make the residual intervention of the Secretary of State under the national security heading perhaps more likely.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will my noble friend ask his right honourable friend to reflect on a fundamental matter: this Government introduced the Competition Act 1998 which, for the first time, gives us a stringent piece of pro-competition legislation? Does it follow logically from that extraordinarily powerful Act that the Secretary of State for Trade—I believe he is still so called—should not intervene as a matter of principle and that industry should get used to the idea that competition is a good thing and should not scream "national interest" every time it affects them. Rather like celibacy, industry believes competition is a good idea for everybody else. In this case competition is good. The Minister should say so and that he will not get involved.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend has given me an opportunity to say that he is right. The powerful Competition Act came into force on 1st March. Already it is beefing-up the activities of the Office of Fair Trading, the offices of the utilities regulators and many others. That is not an argument for pre-judging the consultation that has taken place. Other people have taken it seriously, as must the Government. However, the important consideration is that the Government have taken such issues seriously and have given the necessary powers to regulators and government bodies to pursue anti-competitive practices with proper penalties.